Beijing, 6 April 2014

I think it must be a universal characteristic of human beings to want to remember their dead. Perhaps it’s part of a refusal, deep down in our psyche, to accept that we die, so remembering the dead is a way to declare defiantly that we too, when we will be among the dead, will not really be dead. Whatever it is, and I’m certainly not competent to explore this side of our collective consciousness, we do have ritual days in our calendars when we are called upon to remember our dearly departed. For us in Western Europe, it’s All Souls’ Day, November 2nd.
All souls day Germany-3
For those following the Christian Orthodox tradition, it’s the Saturday of Souls, commemorated some time in Spring
Greek orthodox saturday of souls-2
For the Chinese, it’s the Qingming Festival, or tomb sweeping day. It falls on the 15th day following the Spring equinox, which this year turned out to be yesterday. The pious Beijingers flocked to the tombs of their loved ones, while the rest of us, who don’t have any tombs to sweep in the immediate vicinity, took the day off. My wife and I fall into the latter category, our parents and grandparents lying in peace (I hope) in Italy, France and the UK. Nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting to observe this Chinese festival at first-hand. So we visited a cemetery in the farther reaches of the city, arriving there after a long journey by bus and under the curious stares of the locals.

The cemetery was indeed full of people
tomb sweeping day-1
and it was fascinating to watch what they did. They burned incense
tomb sweeping day-3
As well as leaving normal flowers, they garlanded the graves with paper flowers (I suppose cheaper than real flowers, and certainly a good deal more colourful)
picture 001
They left food on the graves
picture 005
They left money (fake, alas, as we determined after surreptitiously picking up a few notes under the suspicious gaze of one of the gardeners)
tomb sweeping day-5
They paid their respects
tomb sweeping day-4-woman bowing
And even in one case we heard an old woman talking to her husband (I presume), I suppose updating him on what had been happening since she had last visited. The loneliness of old age can indeed be hard …

Well, the flowers we could relate to. After all, we do that in Europe too on All Souls Day – although the garlands of fake flowers was new to us.
All souls day Austria-2
We could also sort of understand the incense – I remember piles of incense being burned in the churches of my youth, although I never saw it used on tombs.

But the food and the money we found really strange. Especially the food. There was something almost animistic about this. It was like the ancient Egyptians who buried their dead with food for the afterlife.
bringing food to the dead egypt
Mind you, it’s not as if we don’t have our own strange cemetery habits. For instance, what I missed were the little candles which we leave on our graves in Europe
All souls day Germany-2-night
But if a Chinese were to ask me what those candles signify I would have to confess to not knowing. To keep away the bad spirits? To help God remember that they are there? To light up the darkness in which they lie?

Something else I missed was the statuary. The tombs we saw were very sober affairs.
picture 012
Compare this to the almost baroque constructions I’m familiar with, especially in Italy. Here are a few examples from the cemetery where my wife’s parents are buried
statua monumentale Milano-2
statua monumentale Milano-3
From the style of these examples you might think that this was a habit of the past, but one of the tombs near my father-in-law’s has a life-size statue of a fisherman standing on it.

around nonno's grave 003

I presume the tomb’s incumbent loved fishing. Another close by, sadder to contemplate, is the statue of the young man buried there, whose life was tragically cut short.

around nonno's grave 006

My father-in-law’s tomb itself has a beautiful statuary group of angels singing in the heavenly choir.
angels with trumpets
We are going back to Milan in a few weeks to recuperate it after cremating his remains. My father-in-law has had thirty-five years of peaceful repose and now it is the turn of someone else to lie there: the iron law of increasing populations and decreasing real estate in which to rest the dead. But we’ll have the singing angels by which to remember him – and my mother-in-law, who chose the statuary’s theme. They had a common love of music. We will try to have his ashes relocated next to hers, so that after a separation of thirty-five years they can be together in death as they had been in life.

I wish I could say the same for my parents. Deaths ten years apart and the same real-estate forces which I just alluded to has meant that, after a life together, they were buried in different places. It fills me with melancholy and makes me think of Thomas Hardy’s poem In Death Divided

I shall rot here, with those whom in their day
You never knew,
And alien ones who, ere they chilled to clay,
Met not my view,
Will in your distant grave-place ever neighbour you.

No shade of pinnacle or tree or tower,
While earth endures,
Will fall on my mound and within the hour
Steal on to yours;
One robin never haunt our two green covertures.

Some organ may resound on Sunday noons
By where you lie,
Some other thrill the panes with other tunes
Where moulder I;
No selfsame chords compose our common lullaby.

The simply-cut memorial at my head
Perhaps may take
A Gothic form, and that above your bed
Be Greek in make;
No linking symbol show thereon for our tale’s sake.

And in the monotonous moils of strained, hard-run Humanity,
The eternal tie which binds us twain in one
No eye will see
Stretching across the miles that sever you from me.

I hope that, one day, I can bring them together so that finally one robin can haunt their two green covertures.


All Souls Day Germany: [in
Greek Orthodox Saturday of souls: [in
Tomb sweeping day-1: [in
Tomb sweeping day-2: [in
Tomb sweeping day-3: our picture
Tomb sweeping day-4: our picture
Tomb sweeping day-5: [in
Tomb sweeping day-6: [in
All Souls Day Austria-flowered graves: [in
Bringing food to the dead in Egypt: [in
All Souls Day Germany-night lights: [in
General view of Chinese cemetery: our photo
Statues cemetery Milan-1: [in
Statues cemetery Milan-2: [in
Statues cemetery Milan-3: [in
Statues cemetery Milan-4, 5 & 6: our photo


Beijing, 22 March 2014

A few days ago, as I was walking to work along my piece of canal, I saw, sitting on the lower branch of a willow tree, a small bird which I had never seen before. I’m not a birder by any means, but I do appreciate a beautiful or graceful bird when I see one. This bird had a wonderfully variegated plumage, really very handsome. By the shape of its head and bill I was guessing it to be a member of the woodpecker family. Intrigued, I sidled forward to have a better look. The bird cocked its head, kept a wary eye on me, and finally decided I had invaded too much of its private space. With a quick flip of its wings, it was off, dipping and lifting across the waters of the canal. I finally lost sight of it among the willow trees and buildings on the other bank.

The internet is a wonderful thing, really it is. Yes, there are dark corners where bad, nasty people show and say bad, nasty things, but overall it is a great global market square into which you can wander of an evening and, like young Marco Polo sauntering along Venice’s wharves, hear tales fantastical of faraway lands and pick up information from the furthest reaches of the globe. This burst of appreciation for the internet at this particular moment in my tale comes from the fact that at home that evening, on a whim, I typed “birds in beijing” in my search field to see what I could find. And I immediately stumbled onto the site Birding Beijing! I salute its author, Terry Townshend, a Beijing resident like myself and a dedicated birder, who has put together this wonderful site.

Terry’s site gave me the answer I was looking for. The bird I had seen in the morning was indeed a woodpecker, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) to be precise. This photo is from his site
Here is another from a UK site

which I chose because this woodpecker has a range which stretches all the way from China across Central Asia and Europe to my home country. It gives me an odd sense of comfort, that: part of home in Beijing.

Terry’s site gave me the answer to one more ornithological question which has been nagging me for the last few years, the identity of another bird which I have often seen here. It seemed to me quite like the magpie, although with much more delicate colouring in its feathers. It seemed to fill the same ecological niche, too, as far as I could gather. Well, Terry’s site tells me that it is indeed a magpie! (although a different member of the family, to be sure). It is the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus). This photo of it is also from Terry’s site


but this one comes from a Russian orthinological site


which I include because the range of this magpie covers East and North-East Asia (so including Siberia).

I’m not sure “azure” really describes the wonderful shade of blue which this bird sports in its wing and tail feathers. A long hunt through various other internet sites makes me think that cornflower blue might better describe this particular shade of blue. The internet also tells me that this colour was one of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s favourite colours. Is the blue in his painting Girl with a Pearl Earring the same?


Perhaps it is a slightly darker shade of blue?

Flush from these two successful identifications, I went through the rest of the bird gallery in Terry’s site, to put a name to what else I’ve seen in Beijing. He mentions the the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which I’ve had cause to write about in an earlier posting. It seems more common than the azure-winged magpie; I certainly feel that I see it more often. Terry does not include a picture of this magpie (too common, no doubt), so I add here a photo from another site
Eurasian magpie-2
Terry mentions the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). I’ve seen that, of course, who hasn’t?
I think I might once have seen another bird he mentions, the eastern great tit (Parus minor)
I’m almost certain I also saw a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) once. I spotted it during a particularly boring teleconference for which I was a passive participant, sitting at my desk and staring out of the window while the others droned on.  I was glad for the lovely distraction of its diving and swooping around my office building.


These wonderful photos move me to cite here three poems about birds which I particularly like:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Lovely …

And yet I’m worried. Last Christmas, when we were in New York, we visited the Metropolitan Museum. On our wanderings through the galleries we bumped into four of these hanging on the wall of a corridor:


They are capes, from Peru. They are 1,000 years old, made with the feathers of the blue-and-yellow macaw.

Blue-and-yellow Macaw

How many of these magnificent birds were killed to make these capes? Such needless, selfish destruction! Nowadays, it’s not killing for their feathers that’s killing off birds, it’s destruction of their habitat. But it’s still the same: needless, selfish destruction.


Great spotted woodpecker-1: [in
Great spotted woodpecker-2: [in
Azure-winged magpie-1: [in
Azure-winged magpie-2: foto 4 ( [in
Girl with a pearl earring: [in
Eurasian magpie: [in
Tree sparrow: [in
Japanese tit: [in
Kestrel: [in
Peruvian featherwork cape: [in
Blue and yellow macaw: [in